The Storm have found some of their most strenuous adversaries in the Sea Eages this season. Their last encounter was arguably the most dramatic match of the year – closer to an Origin game in its intensity – as Melbourne were kept tryless, Cameron Smith was sent to the sin bin for the first time his career, and three other players were sent off the field. If any game was personal for the purple army in 2018, then, it was Saturday night’s clash at Brookvale Oval. Yet once again, Manly proved a worthy opposition, only conceding a one-point win to Melbourne, thanks in part to Daly Cherry-Evans, who was clearly pumped by returning to, scoring in and eventually winning his first Queensland Maroons match in ages the week before.
The Sea Eagles really got rolling over the first six minutes, despite giving the first dropout of the game to the Storm, seamlessly shifting, recombining and recorrecting whenever the purple army seemed to be gaining the upper hand. That all culminated with a remarkably good kick on the last tackle by Addin Fonua-Blake that saw Young Tounaimapea trapped in goal, gaining Manly a dropout of their own. On the next set, Marty Taupau showcased his offload game at just the right moment, setting up Manase Fainu to break through the line after dummying to Jake Trbojevic, and then send a short ball over to Shaun Lane for the first four points.
Once again, Manly had come up with the first try against Melbourne. While the replay showed that Lane had been in the process of losing the footy as he skidded over the line, the try was deemed fine, and with DCE booting through the extras the Brookvale boys were now six points ahead. The Sea Eagles continued to ask all kinds of questions of the Melbourne ruck, as an offload from Fonua-Blake almost propelled Tom Trbojevic through the defensive line midway through the restart.
Before the Storm knew it, Lane had scored again, thanks to a slightly reconfigured version of the sequence that had led to his first four points. Again, Fonua-Blake provided the pivotal gesture, drawing the Storm defence in with a rapid play-the-ball, and so clearing up some space for Fainu to sent a short ball across to Tom Turbo, who popped an even shorter ball – almost a flick pass – to put Lane over once again. The last line of defence was Ryley Jacks, who hesitated just long enough between a lower and higher tackle to allow Lane to cruise through to add four more points to the Manly scoreline.
It remained ten points, since DCE’s kick ricocheted off the right upright – a pretty unlucky outcome given the angle and proximity to the posts. This felt like the start of a totally barnstorming night from the Sea Eagles, but they would end up only scoring another penalty kick and field goal, as the Storm gradually muscled their way back into a contest that was already starting to feel like a flashback to their disastrous last meeting with the northern beaches outfit.
The penalty kick came at the twenty-five minute mark, following a hand in the ruck from Ryan Hoffman. By this stage, Manly had enjoyed 67% of possession, and Melbourne had only completed 57% of their sets, as opposed to the Sea Eagles’ 80%. Something had to give for the Storm, as the hosts now entered their period of maximum dominance, easing into a series of unremitting sets in which DCE seemed to be channeling all the assurance the Maroons had shown over the Blues on Wednesday night.
Yet just as the Blues had started to resurge towards the end of the first half, so the Storm now regathered in the last ten minutes here. The first chink in the Manly armour came with a beautiful crossfield kick from DCE that should by all accounts been a try assist, only for Brad Parker to mistime his catch and allow the Steeden to sail over the sideline. On the next set, a slow peel from Kelepi Tanginoa finally gave the Storm the field position they needed, setting them up to score their first try with only 38% possession during the match so far.
On the third tackle, Brandon Smith ricocheted off the defence a couple of times and almost broke through the line, injecting a wave of adrenalin into the team. A tackle late, Curtis Scott sent a massive cut-out pass to Brodie Croft, who offloaded to Suliasi Vunivalu a second before hitting the ground. From there, Vunivalu was always going to crash over, but you didn’t need a replay to show that Croft’s offload had been forward, making this a pretty frustrating call for the Sea Eagles given the way that the scoreline eventually turned out.
While the Sea Eagles were still a converted try ahead, DCE read the rest of the game perfectly, sensing that this would be a close match, and so booting through a field goal a minute out for the siren – the last point that would be scored by the Sea Eagles in the match. Still, the second error didn’t start all that well for the Storm, with a handling error from Ryan Hoffman and then an offside penalty for Croft late in the tackle count making it look as if Manly must be the next to score about five minutes in.
As it turned out, a fumble from DCE right on the line was all it took to reverse the momentum – a small mistake, to be sure, but the kind of small mistake that can so often shift the rhythm in tightly paced games. Scooping up the Steeden, Hughes made his way to the thirty, setting the platform for a fresh burst of Melbourne energy, with big runs from Hoffman, Bromwich and finally Croft, who almost ran right over the top of DCE on his way to the try line.
The Sea Eagles weren’t too nettled, since Turbo was calm and confident enough to wait until the last moment for the footy to skitter into touch at the back end of the last-tackle kick. But he’d reckoned without Brandon Smith, who dived over the line and popped the footy back into the in goal area just before hitting the grass, forcing Turbo to clean it up after all. So rapidly did Smith execute his play that he seemed to have rewound time, forcing the Manly fullback to clean up a ball he thought he’d ushered over the sideline, and showing the Melbourne side that they could use this second half to revise and reset their dispiriting opening forty minutes if they got stuck in now.
No surprise, then, that everything came together for the Storm on the next set, as Croft and Scott once again met up on the left corner, where a late penalty was called for a strip on Scott from Kelly. It was the second contentious call that resulted in points for Melbourne, but you couldn’t really accuse the purple army of being lucky, since the Manly defence was so bad during the next passage of play that they deserved to give away four points.
Collecting the footy right on the line, Scott barged his way so easily through Kelly, Turbo and Thompson that it seemed as if there had to have been an obstruction somewhere in the mix. The replay showed that it had just been scrappy defence from the Manly side, making this the easiest try of the night, and a pretty cathartic prospect for Scott after being set off during Melbourne’s shock loss to the Sea Eagles in Round 11. A couple of tackles later, after Smith had added the extras, Scott crossed over again, but the Sea Eagles had learned their lesson now, applying just enough pressure to ensure that he lost the footy at the very moment he put it down.
Despite Scott’s frustration, there was no doubt the Storm were now rolling as confidently as the Sea Eagles had been in the first stanza. Yet like the home team before them, Melbourne found it hard to really consolidate their one-point deficit. It was the kind of match where Cooper Cronk would have once secured things with a field goal, but in his absence the best they could hope for was a final penalty kick from Smith, nine minutes out from the end, following an offside penalty for Thompson at the back end of a Brodie Croft bomb.
While the Storm came away with the win, then, this was certainly not a decisive win – and nowhere near as decisive as they would have hoped for following their infamous Round 11 game. They’ll be looking to smash the Warriors, then, when they travel to Mt. Smart next Sunday afternoon. On the other side of the Steeden, the Sea Eagles didn’t lost by all that much, and controlled vast portions of the game, providing them with a much-needed rallying-point for when they take on a confident Roosters outfit at Lottoland following the Warriors-Storm match at the end of Round 19.